Constructive dialogue key for effective cooperation toward sustainability

The 3rd Mekong Regional Land Forum Land, on 26 – 27 May 2021, brought together more than 1,000 regional and global reform-minded actors to engage in in-depth, interactive debate and learning. With high-level representatives from government, civil society, the private sector, and international development agencies the Forum addressed the most pressing issues, challenges and opportunities facing tenure security and the impacts of agribusiness investment in the Mekong Region.

Co-organized by the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) project, the Land Portal and FAO, the Forum focused on two key themes: the recognition of customary and collective forest tenure in the Mekong Region, focusing on key trends, initiatives and potential solutions at national and regional level, and contemporary developments and challenges related to Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) in the context of forested landscapes, focusing on such issues as the application of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to support development, avoid conflict and respect community rights.  

These priority areas are central strategic priorities for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC, the principal donor of MRLG. “Switzerland is committed to supporting land and forest tenure in the Mekong region,” according to Mr. Jean-François Cuénod, SDC Regional Director, “ensuring that smallholders’ rights to land and forest resources are recognized in national legal frameworks and policies, and protected in practice.”

The Mekong region plays an outsized role in the world. Home to some of the most rapidly growing economies, the Mekong is also a biodiversity hotspot of global significance, a critical geography in the planetary carbon system, and a leading global producer of several large-scale agricultural commodities.

Mixed landscapes at Phoukoud District, Xiengkhouang Province, Lao PDR. Photo: Bart Verweij

Customary and Collective Smallholder Forest Tenure: Scaling Up for a Better Future

Local communities and smallholders make up more than 70 million people who depend on the Mekong’s forest areas for their livelihoods and have been largely managing these through customary systems for generations. Based on recent FAO analyses, today nearly one third of forest are owned or managed by communities and smallholders worldwide. Countless evidence demonstrates how communities have sustainably been the custodians of their land and forests by safeguarding valuable natural resources (such as carbon). Yet, many communities still lack robust tenure rights over the land and forests they depend on. 

Throughout the Mekong Region, legislation on land and forests have increasingly provided entry points or ‘bright spots’ to grant increased tenure rights to communities. Yet major obstacles still stand in the way of implementation, mainly incomplete and overlapping legislations, conflicts between sectors and poor enabling environments. Transparent and participatory engagement with policies and policy makers through multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships are critically important. Engagement with national and regional policy makers can ensure effective implementation of land and forest policies, that both secure tenure and ensure opportunities for economic growth is more important now more than ever as the region is experiencing an increase of land-based investments. As Louisa Jensen from FAO emphasized:

“The land use for agriculture investment after the COVID pandemic will be increased and it will be affected the smallholders especially with land displacement.  With secure land tenure, smallholder farmers will have their rights to protect their lands.” 

Creating and building mechanisms such as implementing guidelines and decrees that address complexity and diversity of customary tenure and benefit both communities and national governments can be supported and endorsed by regional platforms such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), through collaboration through existing sub-platforms and working groups, like that of the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF). The AWG-SF works to provide ASEAN member states with policy recommendations on social forestry and sustainable forest management, including recognizing and protecting customary sand statutory tenure arrangements. A collaborative effort is being taken to develop an ASEAN regional policy framework for recognizing customary forest tenure, this holds great promise, but we must ensure that this remains practical and implementable, so that it can be used as an enabling tool by key actors within ASEAN member states, and for the good of the local communities. 

Securing community and customary tenure are essential for the sustainable future of forests in the Mekong region, to do that it is critical for: legal frameworks and implementing tools to have clear and simple provisions for securing tenure with strong governance, and sufficient support and funding; that are inclusive and allow for financial development for both the government and communities; and that are advocated and supported by regional platforms and decision makers. 

Respecting the rights and needs of smallholders is key to more mutually beneficial agribusiness investments

Smallholder farmers collectively represent by far the largest private sector investors in the region. Policies have generally favored large agribusiness companies at the expense of smallholder land and forest claims, in the name of economic development. This is wrong-headed, as the true drivers of economic growth are these smallholders, whose production in fact provides the foundation for wider agro-industries. Policies need to be changed to reflect this and to support, protect, and leverage this engine of growth. Often, this comes down questions of how to foster more responsible investment practices.

A basis for protecting the land and resource rights of smallholders in the context of agribusiness investments are the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). Effective FPIC processes are partly about changing the view that communities are hostile to investment projects, and respecting local rights and needs. Without this, land disputes can frequently arise, which come with substantial costs and threaten the viability of investments. The avoidance of harm and promotion of more mutually beneficial practices similarly informs the framework on Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI). Adapted for Southeast Asia, the ASEAN Guidelines on Responsible Investment in Food, Agriculture and Forestry (ASEAN RAI) bring together diverse existing efforts towards more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable agricultural investments. These include improving investment responsibility in the forest landscapes of the Mekong region, by respecting forest tenure rights (which incorporates FPIC) and conservation and sustainable management of forest resources. 

“I’m struck by how good responsible agriculture investment sounds and how important it is.  But let’s acknowledge that an unacceptable level of irresponsible investment continues,” James Bampton of WWF remarked, offering a realist response during the panel commentary on day two of the forum.

The key challenge that has to be overcome is how to encourage those irresponsible companies, whose investments may be smaller scale and shorter term, and with tighter margins, that investing more responsibly is in their interests too?

Way forward, turning the experiences into practice

While there has long been an effort to formalise the customary tenure, the fact is the process is complicated and slow and there has been success in passage of legal instruments, but many of these remain ‘partial’.  

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, United Nations said during the closing session that “The use of FPIC is heart-warming. This is not the norm, and in general the private sector and governments do not like to hear about it. Sharing documentation of positive cases will help others learn the FPIC can lead to less risk. Otherwise, conflict and resistance will prevail, and the state may wield its strong hand.”

Over the coming weeks and months, these discussions will be carried forward, leading to collaborative and transformative actions across stakeholder groups. “There is no doubt that the issues before us are complex and challenging, and the stakes have never been higher. More than ever, constructive debate and dialogue are needed to address our shared concerns,” concluded Dr. Micah Ingalls, Team Leader of MRLG, “such dialogue is foundational to effective cooperation. Without it, we can entertain little hope for a more sustainable and inclusive future for the people of the Mekong.”

This is at the heart of the Mekong Region Land Governance Project. MRLG is rooted in the conviction that we can tackle these challenges better if we do it together. With the goal of improving the tenure security of smallholder farmers, MRLG thus works through alliances, supporting our members to forge a common vision and collective action between civil society, the private sector and government agencies. Today, the MRLG alliance totals 84 member institutions, working around two thematic areas—the recognition of customary tenure and responsible agricultural investments—to develop and test better policies and more innovative ways of implementing these in practice.MRLG is a project of the Government of Switzerland, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), with co-financing from the Government of Germany and the Government of Luxembourg.

Vietnamese boy is bathing his buffaloes. Photo: Thinh Hoang Hai

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